Gel nails are created by applying multiple coats of gel polish to the nail and curing each coat under a UV or LED lamp. After a few rounds of painting and curing, your nails are fully dry and strong enough to last a few weeks. In other words? Say goodbye to beautiful nails that chip when you least expect it.

These nails should be your go-to if you want a long-lasting design that also protects your nails. Gel nails are versatile and great for creating almost any look. You can have solid matte nails one month and a beautiful mix of ombré and patterned nails the next. 

Like any other type of manicure, you probably want to learn a few things before you book your next nail appointment. In this guide, we’re going to cover everything you need to know so you can decide if gel nails are right for you.

How are gel nails done?

A nail artist will first prep and clean your nails, then apply and cure multiple coats of polish on each nail. To prep your nails, they’ll cut, file, and shape them. They’ll also push back or cut your cuticles to ensure the polish sticks to the nail. Some nail artists may use isopropyl alcohol to clean off any remaining debris before applying color.

After your nails are prepped, your nail artist will apply the base coat to help the polish stick to your nail and to prevent staining your natural nail plate. Next, they’ll apply color and design to your nails. They’ll apply multiple coats depending on your desired design. Lastly, they’ll apply a top coat to help the color and design last as long as possible. Your artist will use a UV or LED light to cure each coat.

How long do gel nails take?

A gel nail appointment can take between 45 and 60 minutes depending on your nail artist’s level of experience, their technique, and your nail goals. For example, glittery and patterned nails will take much longer to finish than solid nails.

What are the types of gel nails?

You can get soft or hard gel nails depending on your desired nail design and what you want to get from your manicure. Below are the main things you need to know about each type:

  • Soft gel nails are easily removed by soaking them in acetone. They’re lighter than hard gel and more commonly used with gel manicures.
  • Hard gel nails are thick and normally used to add length and strengthen your nail. You can also repair broken nails with hard gel.
soft gel vs hard gel

How long do gel nails last?

Gel nails can last up to three weeks depending on how well you care for them. They last longer than regular polish and can endure lots of wear and tear in comparison.

If you want your nails to last long, follow some of these care tips:

  • Get your cuticles pushed back so the polish latches only onto the nail.
  • Ask your nail artist about using a nail primer if your nails are prone to chipping.
  • Ensure your nails are dry before getting your nails done.
  • Avoid excessive exposure to hot water.
  • File or cover broken nails at home right away to prevent further breakage.
  • See your nail artist regularly for nail refills and to professionally fix chips.
  • Wear gloves when handling harsh chemicals.
  • Regularly apply cuticle oil and hand cream to keep your nails nourished.
  • Keep your nails as dry as possible and don’t submerge them in water for too long.

Although gel nails can last a long time, we recommend giving your nails a break every once in a while. Having product on your nails for extended periods can damage them and trap bacteria over time. Excessive use of acetone can also dry out your nails.

How much do gel nails cost?

Gel nails cost anywhere between $25 and $65 depending on where you go, the intricacy of your nail design, and your nail tech’s tip. Before you bring in complex design inspiration for your nail artist, consider your budget and how much you’re willing to invest. The upfront cost of your nails can be worth it if you take the time to do your research and care for them afterwards.

What are gel nail extensions?

A nail artist will form gel nail extensions by putting a nail form underneath your nail, then curing hard gel with a UV light on your natural nail. You’ll need a little length on your natural nail so the extensions have something to stick to.

Gel nail extensions are a great alternative to acrylics. They’re not as heavy and much faster to apply. You also don’t get the harsh chemical smells you get from acrylics.

These extensions can last up to three weeks, but this especially depends on how well you take care of them and how often you see your nail artist. To remove them, your nail artist will need to file down the extension and the polish before soaking your nails.

close up of turtle shell and black nails

Are gel manicures safe?

Gel nails should be safe as long as you follow proper prep, application, and removal. Removal is a big source of harm since it’s easy to get it wrong.

Want to avoid removal damage? Fight the urge to rip off or pick at your nails. Forcing them off can damage your nails more than you think. You should also go easy with the nail file. If properly applied, gel manicures should require minimal to no filing to remove them. The best way to avoid damage is to get your nails professionally removed. 

Your nails can dry out after a few rounds of gel nails since you need to soak them off with acetone. Using acetone is inevitable, so the best way to minimize this is to take a break every now and then between manicures.

Are UV lights harmful?

Exposure to lots of UV radiation is harmful, but UV exposure from nail drying lamps is low risk when properly used. LED lamps are a popular alternative that dry fast and don’t emit UV radiation. Look on your nail artist’s website or call ahead to confirm what type of lamp they use. If you prefer to stick with UV lights, you can apply sunscreen on your hands to give them some protection.

How do I remove gel nail polish?

You can remove gel polish by soaking cotton balls in acetone and wrapping them around your nails with foil or plastic wrap.

After a few minutes, you’ll remove the cotton balls and lightly scrape off the excess polish with a wooden stick. You’ll then gently buff your nails to even out your nail plates. Finally, you’ll finish off by applying some nourishing cuticle, hand, and nail cream.

If you’re comfortable with doing it yourself, you can remove gel polish at home. Otherwise, we recommend seeing your nail artist when you’re ready for a break. Keep in mind that most salons charge anywhere between $5 and $20.

We also highly recommend taking a picture or writing down the type of polish used on your nails. This is helpful if you go to a different nail artist for removal since some polishes vary in removal methods.

take a picture of the polish used so you know how to remove it later

Gel vs. acrylic nails

Gel and acrylic are popular long-lasting manicures that greatly differ in their application process. To form acrylic nails, nail artists will start by combining liquid and powder to create a paste. They’ll apply and shape the paste on your natural nail to make it look natural. Then they’ll apply color if the powder doesn’t already have a color.

Besides the application, gel and acrylics also differ by their durability. Acrylics are harder and less flexible compared to gel nails. Gel nails can last longer and are more durable. However, you can create many designs and nail shapes with both types. Acrylics also cost about the same range as gel nails.

Gel vs. Shellac nails

Shellac is a nail polish brand created by beauty company CND. It’s a combination of regular and gel polish. Just like gel nails, each coat is cured with a UV or LED light. Since Shellac is partially regular polish, it’s easier to remove than gel. 

Ask your nail artist about what type of polish they’re using at your next gel nail appointment. Some people say “Shellac” nails when they’re really talking about gel nails.

There are many other types of manicures beyond gel, acrylic, and Shellac. Learning about the other types can help you decide what’s best for you.

What about gel powder?

Gel powder, or powder gel, is a made-up term that some salons claim is a hybrid of gel and acrylic nails. Although this specific product doesn’t exist, you can cure gel polish over acrylic nails to get the best qualities of both.

Some people may say “gel powder” when they’re talking about dip nails. These nails use dip powder instead of gel to apply color.

Can I use an at-home kit?

You can use an at-home gel polish kit if you’re confident you can find a good kit and can do a great job by yourself. 

Do your research, read reviews, and chat with a nail artist for tips on a good at-home kit. There are many factors to consider, like the polish quality and color selection. You also need to consider what tools it comes with and what you can realistically achieve with an at-home kit.

Any DIY job can potentially harm your nails and leave you with a less-than-amazing set of nails, especially if you don’t follow directions. If you’re not sure you can do that, it’s best to go to a nail artist you trust. A quality manicure is worth the money so you can avoid damaging your nails at home.

what to consider when buying and at home gel kit

Are gel nails worth it

Gel nails are worth it if you want long-lasting nails and don’t mind sticking with the same design for a few weeks. They’re also great if you’re going on a long trip or you’re looking for an excuse to skip weekly trips to the salon.

If you like the flexibility of switching up your nails, gel nails aren’t a great choice for you. Removing designs with acetone is not good for your nails. Manicures using regular polish or press-ons are a couple of alternatives that aren’t as harsh on your nails.

A great nail artist is the key to getting a gorgeous gel nail design while keeping your natural nails safe. They have the experience and technique to deliver different styles that fit your nail goals. Nail artists can also give you tips to prolong your manicure and keep your natural nails healthy. If you’re ready to find someone to create your dream nails, check out our community of nail artists to find someone near you.